Staff demonstrate greater creativity when their boss is humble, according to research by Ohio State University. And academics studying workplaces in China have found that the effect is more marked if there is less distance between the manager and the team: when there is a greater power distance between the leader and their employees, humility can be seen as a weakness in a manager who is expected to be dominant and give strong direction.
“Humble leaders were those who gave employees a chance to speak up and have a voice in the decision-making process, but who also acknowledged their own limitations,” says Jasmine Hu, lead author of the study and associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business.
The researchers collected data on 72 teams from 11 information and technology companies in a city in China three times over six months. Team members were first asked to rate their leaders’ humility by agreeing or disagreeing with a series of statements. They also measured the power distance between team members and leaders by asking workers how confident they felt addressing concerns directly with their manager.
Three months later, team members rated how much they shared information with each other and, after six months, leaders rated the creativity of their teams. The results showed that humble leaders encouraged higher levels of creativity within their teams when the power distance was low. This appeared to be because these teams shared more information with each other.
“Leaders who scored higher on humility tended to facilitate information sharing between team members,” says Hu. “And when they shared more information, they broadened the scope of their team’s skills, they more actively looked for solutions to problems and they were more creative.”